Owning Up to It

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Re-election campaigns can bring out all kinds of critics. But one day in 1996, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was surprised to find himself suddenly on the wrong side of some people he had counted as friendlies: poor tenants from publicly funded housing. That day in western Massachusetts, dozens of tenants turned what was supposed to be a routine Kerry photo-op–an AFL-CIO forum on poverty in the hard-bitten city of Springfield–into a circus.

Their landlord’s agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that kept their rents low was about to end. The tenants had a choice: They could take their chances with the landlord, who would be able to raise rents as high as he wanted. Or they could try to buy the buildings themselves, using a special pool of federal funds. To get that money, though, they needed Kerry to convince HUD that they were a worthwhile investment. Kerry had promised he would send a letter to housing secretary Henry Cisneros, but he had yet to deliver.

So the tenants showed up at the forum toting bottles of ketchup, a nod to Kerry’s wife, Theresa Heinz, formerly married to a condiment heir. In the middle of Kerry’s speech, they broke into a rendition of the Heinz “Anticipation” jingle, castigating Kerry for keeping them “wai-ai-ting” for the money. Then they walked out.

A week or so later, the letter was on Cisneros’ desk. And a year after that, the anticipation was over, as HUD delivered nearly $5 million to these tenants at Spring Meadow and Greenfield Gardens, helping them buy their 472 apartments.

“Ten years ago this place was literally falling down,” says Ray Crosler, a Spring Meadow resident. “We fought bureaucracy to get the money for the buyout. It took years back and forth arguing with HUD, but it in the end it worked.”

It was a triumph of organizing for the Anti-Displacement Project, the in-your-face Springfield group that engineered the Kerry assault. But it was also the last of its kind nationwide. In 1997, Congress revoked the funding that allowed tenants of publicly subsidized housing to buy their buildings.

That move couldn’t have come at a worse time. From the late 1960s through the 1980s, landlords across the country rehabbed and built thousands of buildings with generous mortgages from HUD, promising to keep rents low and the housing well-run. But these agreements, set up through programs like Section 8 and Section 236, locked landlords in to the arrangement for only 20 to 40 years.

Now, those deals are running out. Many landlords are now permitted to get out of the business of low-income housing, either by declining a new contract or by choosing to pre-pay their mortgage. Tenants have little say in the matter.

Except in western Massachusetts. Even after the federal funding evaporated, ADP was determined to help other HUD tenants take over their own buildings. In the past decade, the group has developed an inventory of 1,350 apartments in five complexes, and it counts another 15 developments’ worth of organized tenants among its membership. It’s a huge constituency to call on–a power that ADP has used with formidable results.

For these residents, housing is a fulcrum. ADP has found a way to use these resident-owned developments as a springboard to a better life. Through the weight of numbers–and the leverage of equity in their own homes–these residents have the power to negotiate deals with politicians, unions, businesses, and schools to get the jobs, education and other resources they need. It’s the American dream, ADP-style.

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For 11 years, it wasn’t so hard for motivated tenants in publicly funded housing developments to buy out landlords who were trying to get out of the program–Congress had created a special program just for that purpose. Between 1987 and 1996, tenants and nonprofit organizations took over about 33,000 apartments that were once privately owned.

Springfield’s newly formed Anti-Displacement Project took full advantage of the setup, buying apartment complexes and constructing a constituency in the process.

But in 1996, Congress cut off the cash, leaving most tenant groups with few options. That didn’t stop ADP, though. Instead, they became masters of the federal low-income housing tax credit, the number-one source of money for building and rehabilitating affordable housing.

With tax credits, private investors get breaks from the IRS for underwriting low-income developments. But putting together tax credit deals is a complicated and highly political business, involving everything from cozy meetings with elected officials to heavy-duty number crunching.

Among nonprofit developers the program is highly competitive, according to Aaron Gornstein, executive director of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a Massachusetts group that tracks housing policy. “Even if you have the funding, doing buyouts this way is a very complicated process,” says Gornstein. “It’s very difficult to pull off.” It’s not the sort of operation most community organizing groups are accustomed to putting together, and indeed few have.

ADP, however, often manages to make it work. During the past five years, the group has secured $42 million in state and federal funds, about $16.5 million of it in tax credit money, to ensure stable housing and home ownership for 1,100 families. It has also negotiated more than $10 million for renovations.

While the group hires a consultant to do the hardcore financials, it’s tenants who lobby to make sure the cash comes in. The group is a membership organization, in which a core of particularly devoted residents helps organize meetings, rallies, pickets and other events, and then works to get other tenants to turn out for them.

Mary Lou Symmes, vice-president of ADP’s board, has participated in meetings with everyone from Senator Ted Kennedy and HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo to state legislators and housing finance officials, seeking help buying buildings. “It takes a lot of phone calls. You have to hit your congressman, state and local officials, ask for a letter of support,” she says. “It takes a lot of schmoozing.” A former bookkeeper for the phone company, she says she never expected to be involved in anything so high-stakes. “People say, ‘What you’re doing is so cool!’ But I’m very nervous inside still. I just try not to show it.”

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Taking over the buildings is the end of one campaign, but it’s also the beginning of another that’s just as remarkable. Through ADP, residents reach out to local power-brokers, making sure that their concerns stay on the map. At its annual convention–an unusual event that comes off as part religious revival, part political rally–the group invites influential figures like state senators, utility executives and officials of the state university system to answer residents’ questions.

Those guests are also asked to make substantial promises. Last November, for instance, a state housing official pledged $2 million in state bond money to help Greenfield Gardens renovate. ADP makes the stakes clear. Officials who follow through will be lionized by the group. Those who neglect their promises can expect to be publicly vilified. Strange as it may seem, this test wins more friends than foes.

ADP has also managed to win over elected officials by marrying the classic liberal appeal of subsidized housing with an unexpected mate: the by-your-bootstraps notion that poor people must take charge of their own circumstances. Massachusetts pols on both the left (Kerry) and right (Governor William Weld) have made sure to take care of ADP’s members.

“I was certainly skeptical at first,” says State Senator Michael Knapick, a western Massachusetts Republican. “There’s a bit of an antiestablishment notion to what they do, and a nonconformist fashion.” But after meeting with tenants and organizers, he says, he was sold on their message. “I embraced the concept because homeownership is an important idea.”

For ADP, homeownership is just as importantly a practical tool. The apartments residents live in are now their greatest resource. It wouldn’t seem that way, since many of them required extensive renovations. Heating systems, windows, doors, kitchens, bathrooms–all of them needed to be replaced.

But ADP saw an opportunity in the mess. In 1997, it negotiated an agreement with the local building trades union. The group committed to hire AFL-CIO contractors for all of the work. In exchange, the unions promised that they would hire one tenant member for every three workers on the jobs. The unions were also required to mentor ADP hires and follow them to their next job sites. Sixty people, including Crosler, are working as apprentice and journeymen carpenters, laborers, painters and electricians. ADP also got a state grant to help Russian-speaking workers improve their English skills.

“The success of the campaign is based on mutual self-interest,” says Caroline Murray, the group’s executive director. “ADP has newfound access to high-wage careers and membership in the building trades, careers that for most of our people were unattainable. And the trades have not only secured millions in new work but also gained new members who believe in organizing, understand power and are committed to the union.”

Since then, the group has set its sights on education, and on the nearby University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The children of ADP members complain that school guidance counselors routinely dismiss their college aspirations and instead try to funnel them into certificate programs and vocational schools. Likewise, parents may not know what their children need to do to get into college.

ADP wanted to launch a comprehensive program to help kids move from high school to UMass, and at last year’s convention it got a promise from state House Majority Leader William Nagle Jr. to broker a meeting with university officials. Ultimately, the unversity agreed to help students with mentoring, financial aid and college admissions tutoring, all right where they live. Twice a year, kids and their parents go on a bus trip to the campus and attend information sessions there, so it doesn’t remain foreign territory.

Projects like these have strengthened Murray’s conviction that owning housing, and then using it as a means to many ends, is the only way for a community to improve itself. And she has no problem ripping the status quo. “The nonprofits run the world,” she says. “This has really thrown a wrench in that political makeup. People say, tenants can’t do this, they don’t know how.” And then she offers her own distinctive response. “That’s bullshit. People can buy a house.”

JoAnn DiLorenzo is a writer for the Valley Advocate, an alternative weekly paper in western Massachusetts.